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Charmayne James Barrel Racing Clinic


Article & photos by Nancy Brannon

Eleven-time World Champion barrel racer Charmayne James was in Cordova, TN at the Show Place Arena on September 24-27, 2020 for a 4-day clinic. At $595 per attendee, James had 32 students at this clinic, which started at 1 p.m. on Thursday Sept. 24 and ended with a timed competition barrel race on Sunday morning.

Her 4-day clinics (Thursday – Sunday) include a “Charmayne-ride” horse evaluation, a lecture/ demonstration, one-on-one training and drill work. Her drills include such skills as hand position, keeping barrels standing, collection and rating of the horse, body control and awareness. The first barrel approach is the key to having a successful round.

She emphasizes the importance of good horsemanship, proper care and treatment of our equine partners.  She also says, “It’s important to learn correct body control for the rider. The ability to feel what your horse’s body is doing underneath you is necessary to be fast, efficient, and to be aware of any physical problems your horse might have.”

She begins the clinic with an evaluation of each rider and horse, watching them go through the pattern at speed for their particular level. After watching the clinic participants ride, she rides each of their horses to get a feel for what the horse is doing.

Following the evaluations, she gives a presentation on the instruction the participants will receive throughout the 4-day clinic. Part of her talk is motivational as well as going over the basic fundamentals that every rider needs to master, and participants work on these basics during the drills. The drills are geared toward building awareness of how your hands, legs, weight, seat, and eyes dictate the way your horse travels around the barrel. Then she proceeds to barrel pattern work, applying the fundamentals worked on in the drills. Her goal at the completion of the clinic is to make sure that the riders have an awareness and a feel for what their body is doing and the way it guides their horse. It takes time and repetition to get it right!

I had a few moments to speak with James about her goals for this clinic. James had three main points she was covering with her students at this clinic. “Number one is horse rating and collecting before the turn,” she explained. “Number two, when you enter the barrel [space], you don’t want to be too close or too wide. Find the ‘sweet spot.’ Enter the first barrel about 3 to 4 feet to the right. If the horse fades in, angle out a bit, but don’t lift up with the inside rein. Number three, after the entry point, remain about 3 to 4 feet from the barrel. Find the ‘sweet spot,’ and make an even circle about 8 to 10 feet around the barrel.”

She further explained, “A lot of people take the nose too far to the inside, making the hip swing to the outside, which takes away the horse’s power and drive.” Other common problems she sees: “Too many riders are taught to lift the shoulder, but this makes the horse turn in too early. Riders need to learn how to use the outside rein properly.” James emphasizes teaching the riders to look at the “road ahead,” look where they are going and ride forward – not with the head down or to the side.

Some of the drills James worked on with the riders were the two barrel drill, a full circle, riding to the axis points, figure eights, riding a row of barrels, and guiding the horse straight from one barrel to the next.

I asked James if a horse’s stride length made a difference. She said that the longer-strided horses can cover ground faster, but that sometimes they don’t collect as well. She said that race-bred horses are often the fastest. I was curious about how fast barrel racing horses travel. James estimated about 30 to 32 mph full out.
About Charmayne James: Charmayne is an 11-time World Champion. Barrel racing fans will remember her great success with Scamper, with whom she won 10 World Championships, six National Finals Rodeo Championships, and over $1 million in winnings. Charmayne retired Scamper in 1994. In 2000 she qualified for the National Finals Rodeo and was Reserve World Champion with Cruiser, a former race horse. In 2002 she qualified for her 19th consecutive National Finals Rodeo riding Cruiser, winning her 7th National Finals Rodeo and 11th World Championship Title. She retired from her professional rodeo career in 2003 to turn her attention full time to being a clinician and mentor.

Read more of James’ tips for being a better barrel racer in the October 9, 2019 issue of Barrel Horse News: “Fundamentally Aware: Riding Fundamentals.”

Excerpts from the article in Barrel Horse News: “Fundamentally Aware: Riding Fundamentals” by Charmayne James.

Number 1 Hands: keep your right hand on the right side of the horse’s neck and your left hand on the left side. Do this to keep the horse’s head and nose squared with its body. “When fast approaching a barrel, if riders don’t have this basic skill and they get too close to a barrel, they tend to lift up only on the inside rein. This brings the horse in toward the barrel harder. Other riders pull only with the outside rein trying to pull the horse away from the barrel, which holds the horse’s head and nose outside their frame. Either way, the horse is off balance.

When training the horse, first “walk, then trot, then lope around the barrel, making sure to keep equal distance around the barrel. You want your entry point about 3 to 4 feet to the side of the barrel. At the area past the barrel, or what I call axis point 3, you should also be 3 to 4 feet away from the barrel. For horses or riders that anticipate the turn, make sure your hands are keeping your horse framed and aimed correctly, not side passing to try and get into position for the turn.  Side passing and using only the inside rein and inside leg just cues horses to turn early. Guide the horse ahead and around the barrel. It’s really that simple. When you work on this at slower speeds, you create good habits that will help keep things smooth when you go fast.”

Number 2 Look: A good rider looks ahead of the horse and uses her hands to precisely aim the horse’s head so the horse can take the correct road around the barrel. Charmayne often told riders at this clinic to look over the horse’s outside ear. Then the rider’s eyes are looking at the barrel, the rider inadvertently guides the horse 3 to 4 feet short of where the horse’s body needs to be in the turn.

Charmayne warns that horses do not like to get too tight in the turns and those that are habitually taken too tight into the barrels will develop gate issues and other bad habits. “You have to be able to see and ride that perfect road around each barrel. Training for that perfect circle, keeping an equal distance of 3 to 4 feet all the way around is so important,” she says.

Here’s an exercise: trace a circle in flour equally around the barrel at a distance of 3 to 4 feet. Ride to the outside of this track in slow work. This helps riders learn to keep equal distance through the turns, while looking forward to the track they need to take around the barrel.

Number 4: Leads. Knowing which lead your horse is on allows you to prepare for a smooth turn.
Charmayne also notes that when the horse’s head is up, the back hollows and the horse loses the power from its hindquarters, which is needed to make a smooth, fast turn.

Number 5: Time. In order to break bad habits, there is a certain amount of time needed for horse and rider to adjust to the new habit. “Work on better basics with a mindset of being patient,” she says. “Sometimes you’ve got to slow down a level and put things back together. Taking time to build the proper foundation is always worth the effort. It’s so important to instill the best basics from the start.”

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